Sometimes it is difficult for students to grasp the significance of music theory and ear training. At the beginning of each semester, I attempt to impress a few ideas upon the young minds that are entrusted to my care. I begin by asking the class, “Why do we have music theory? Why do we put thousands of undergrads through this experience every year?” I usually get some interesting responses. One of my favorites is, “Because it makes you a better musician.” I always say, “Yes. Maybe. But aren’t there great musicians that don’t know anything about music theory?” Often, some of their favorite musicians managed to survive without a formal theory class. After letting them root around for answers for a while, I tell them some of my opinions. I will warn you that I have a lot of the normal biases that composers bring to the theory classroom. The lecture goes something like this…
First of all, our discipline is almost unique in the academy because our principle medium is invisible. To be sure, we have “texts”, but we deal primarily in sound. The texts or scores, are a guide, but the actual thing that we do is invisible. Talking about invisible things is often quite difficult. We usually have to work by analogies to spacial dimension (that sound is “high” or “low”) or color (that voicing is “bright” or “dark”). We use many other analogies, but they are almost exclusively non-musical. It is vital, especially in an academic setting, that we develop a common vocabulary so that we can discuss the invisible phenomenon that is our medium.
Another way that our discipline is slightly different is in the way we evaluate the invisible sounds. You have to be careful here. Jacques Barzun warns about being too presumptive in thinking that what we do requires more emotion than a mathematician. A mathematician may very well get just as excited about her ‘the calculus’ problem as a musician playing a Beethoven Sonata. However, at least insofar as I know, a mathematician might be evaluated on the elegance of her solution, but she normally won’t be denigrated for not solving a problem with enough emotional fervor. In many ways, we still carry on old traditions that find in music itself a balance between intellectual rigor and emotional engagement. Musicians aren’t just evaluated for their accuracy. They are also judged on the emotional appropriateness of their performance.
So, we turn to music theory in order to describe what we are doing. Here is the important bit. All those Roman Numerals actually have poetic meaning for musicians. A V7 chord has a very specific semiotic meaning. It means something a little different if it is preceded by a N6 or a iiº6. Now, if we try to wrap words around what V7 means, we quickly find that words are blunt instruments for describing the detailed message of the V7. We wind up using analogies again like “tension” and “climax”. Even though words don’t work well, almost any musician knows very specifically the difference in meaning between V7 and viiº7. We very much know what it means, we just can’t tell you in words, so we’ve invented a symbolic language to communicate the invisible phenomenon.
This symbolic language is very important because you are starting off on a path of studying music in a University. In an academic setting, you need to be able to talk about your discipline with other disciplines. We need to be able to speak about our medium in a way that is different than your roommate who says, “This is a really great song.” “Why?” “Umm…it has a good beat.” If you love music enough, you’ll want to be able to describe what you experience in more intimate ways than, “Um…it has a good beat.”
As part of this class, we will ask all of you to be doing a lot of sight singing. You will all also have to play the piano. I know that is a challenge and a source of frustration to many of you, but here is the thing: I have never met anybody – especially any professional musician – utter the words, “I really wished I sucked a little more at playing the piano. I mean, I’m really frustrated that I play so well. Also, I wish my aural imagination was just a little more inaccurate. It’s really annoying to be able to imagine what this sounds like with such clarity.” No one ever regrets the time that they invest in these skills because you use them every single day of your life whether you make your career in music or not.
Finally, you should remember the very high calling you have as musicians. It’s fine that we have doctors and scientists and business people. We need all of that, but we do something that is much more important. We are about the business of transforming people’s lives through music. Before you giggle too much and think I’m joking, let me ask, is there anyone sitting in this room that isn’t here precisely because you had a life changing musical experience in a performance? What we do is extremely powerful and very public. When we make a mistake, it’s not in the privacy of the lab. It happens on stage in front of hundreds of people. The mistakes you make in theory class and ear training lead to mistakes on stage. If you want to give others life transforming musical experiences, fix your deficiencies. Learn to listen and describe what you hear with our special poetic language. It is one of the great pleasures in life.